Thursday, December 19, 2013

Capital of Christmas, Part II

December was a great month to live in Strasbourg! There were Christmas markets crammed into every available space in the city, and lights everywhere. Tons of tourists came to see it all, and it was weird to see Strasbourg so crowded.

I have a ton of pictures, so I'm not really sure where to start! How about the sign that officially says that Strasbourg is the Capital of Christmas? :)

The lovely Christmas tree was very close to where I live.

And even closer to where I live, here's my street!

I loved going on walks at night and seeing lights all over the city.

Of course, during the day the best part was the Christmas markets! I loved getting hot chocolate and then doing some window-shopping.

Mostly, the markets sold food and Christmas decorations, with some other random stuff thrown in there. For myself, I bought some little porcelain Alsacian houses and a few ornaments. 

There were, naturally, some cute decorations to see in the day time too.

Strasbourg is already a pretty cool city without all of this stuff, so it was amazing to get to see all of this! And I was happy that Jenna and Olimpia both visited me in December so I could show this to them too. 

But guess what I'm happy about now?? I'm HOME!!!!

Joyeux Noël, tout le monde!

Friday, December 13, 2013

Gymnastics in Germany

Two weeks ago, I went on a little day trip to Stuttgart, Germany. Why? To watch gymnastics! More specifically, because I'm weirdly obsessed with watching gymnastics. And because Stuttgart is only an hour train ride away!

8 gymnasts competed, and most of them are pretty famous. All of my favorite European gymnasts competed, as well as an American girl that I really like to watch.

They were Briannah Tsang from Canada, Carlotta Ferlito and Vanessa Ferrari from Italy, Elisabeth Seitz from Germany, Larisa Iordache from Romania, Ruby Harrold from the U.K., Giulia Steingruber from Switzerland, and Elizabeth Price from the U.S.

Carlotta, Vanessa, Elisabeth, Larisa, and Giulia are Olympians, and Ruby and Elizabeth were Olympic alternates.

I had a really good seat in the 5th row right by the balance beam, so most of my pictures are from that event.

It was fun to watch Elizabeth, the American girl, win! She did amazing. I also loved watching the Romanian girl, Larisa, do the most beautiful gymnastics.

I also count seeing Vanessa Ferrari's warm-up gear as a highlight.

Looking good, Vanessa.

After that I had a few hours before my train, so I ventured out to see a little bit of Stuttgart! This was the first weekend that the Christmas markets opened, so I of course had to see the one there. It wasn't hard to find, because it seemed like everyone else was going there too. It was very, very crowded; which made it hard to take any pictures, but I did my best.

So I guess I can say that I've experienced a German Christmas market now! I would say the main difference between the German and French markets is that in Germany everyone smells like beer and in France everyone smells like wine ;)  But I could just say that of the countries in general, sooooo...

My favorite thing I saw there was a big heart-shaped gingerbread cookie that said "Ich bin single." I guess if you don't have anyone to buy you heart-shaped cookies, you do what you have to do.

And that concludes the approximately 7 hours that I spent in Germany.

Monday, December 9, 2013

A Luxembourgish Weekend

A few weeks ago, I found out that I had a four-day weekend. And this was just the week after I had two weeks off (in Italy!). There was no school on November 11th for Armistice Day. I decided that I should make the most of this.

Since I had just been in Italy, I was really feeling the need to check another country off of my list, or at least see someplace new. I started doing some research. I didn’t want to spend a lot of money, or spend a lot of time planning something elaborate...because the Italy trip took a lot of money and planning.

Since it was on Veteran’s Day, I looked up how to get to the Verdun battlefield, but it looked too complicated to get there without a car. Plus that was in France. So mundane. 

I looked into going somewhere in Switzerland, but I was really feeling the Veteran’s Day theme (Switzerland is Switzerland, so they don’t really have battles haha). After some researching, I realized that the Battle of the Bulge memorial site in Bastogne, Belgium wasn’t very far away from Strasbourg.  But again, it looked too complicated to get there.

But thanks to Tripadvisor, which is quickly becoming one of my best friends, I learned that the Battle of the Bulge American cemetery was in Luxembourg...where there’s a train station! Luxembourg, Luxembourg is just over the border from Bastogne. A lot of the fighting took place in Luxembourg as well as Belgium.

So with that random decision made late on Saturday, I bought some train tickets to go to Luxembourg on Monday morning. It was only about 40 euros round-trip, and about a two hour train ride. The tiny country of Luxembourg became #13 on my official tally.

Right away from the train station, I took a taxi to the American cemetery. Three years ago on Memorial Day, I got to visit the American cemetery in Normandy with my study abroad group. That was a really cool experience (especially for someone like me who loves WWII...), so it was only fitting that I got to visit a similar place on Veteran’s Day.

Here’s the entrance.

As I was walking in, I realized that I was far from the only person who had this idea. There were hundreds of people there. This was just the back of the crowd. I had perfect timing in getting there! 

I was just in time for a big ceremony. There were a ton of military families there that are stationed in Europe. I got there as the national anthem started playing. I wasn’t expecting there to be any kind of ceremony, so it made me so so happy to hear that song. What I’ve realized is that the longer I’m away from home, the more patriotic I feel. Since April, I’ve only spent a month in America!

EVERYONE there was American. It was awesome. For a whole hour, I only heard American English. That made my ears happy. It gets tiring to only hear French all the time. 

After the national anthem there was a little speech and a 21 gun salute. There were these veterans (of WWII, I’m guessing?... but they’d have to be pretty old...). And in the cemetery behind them were Marines holding the flag.

It was very foggy, which made everything look surreal and added to the solemn ambience.

It’s such a beautiful place, isn’t it? There are about 5,000 soldiers buried here. The Battle of the Bulge was the last German offensive, and 20,000 Americans died there. These 5,000 are the ones that weren’t repatriated. 

General George S. Patton didn’t die until long after the war, but he requested to be buried here with his soldiers. 

I’m glad that I could take advantage of being in Europe and do this. I didn’t even talk to anyone while I was there, but I felt so at home just being surrounded by other people who love America. Team USA.

So then I had to see the rest of Luxembourg. Which wasn’t that hard. It didn’t take much wandering to find where I wanted to go, even though I didn’t even have directions. Small countries are great that way!

Walking from the train station to the main part of the city, it looks like you’re surrounded by nature.

The first thing I wanted to try to find was the cathedral. I thought it was this at first...

but that turned out to be a library.

The actual cathedral didn’t look like a church on the outside, but it looked like some sort of pope guy on the door so I decided to go in.

I was kind of nervous to try to open these big heavy doors when I wasn’t even sure that it was a public building. Happily, they turned out to be automatic, and swung right open for me.

It was immediately pretty clear that I had found the cathedral.

My next destination was Zara. I am on a quest this year to shop at my favorite store in as many countries as possible. Luxembourg makes 9!

I set off to wander through the city after my shopping break. The best thing about exploring small cities is that you can wander aimlessly without getting lost.

I eventually stumbled upon the palace.

I didn’t see the royal family (I was kind of hoping to run into them, this country isn’t that big...), but I found a picture that was even better than meeting them in person. Here’s a postcard of the royal family and THEIR WESTIES. Finding this was the cherry on top of my Luxembourgish day. I miss my American westie who's waiting for me at home!

Doesn’t this look like it was from the 90s? I hope this was taken in the 90s, because otherwise these people are super awkward. Maybe the 90s came late to Luxembourg? The princes look like they're ready to form a boy band.

According to Tripadvisor, the must-see place in Luxembourg is the Corniche. Luxembourg in divided into an upper city and a lower city. The Corniche is a look-out point/walkway in the upper part with a beautiful view of the lower.

My first thought was, ‘Yes, this is what I picture when I think of Luxembourg.’ Not that I've ever spent much time thinking about Luxembourg.

I spent a long time walking along this path. I would say it lived up to the Tripadvisor hype. 

At this point, I had seen all I wanted to in the country and still had 2 hours until my train left. 

I found some lunch, which was a really gross cheese sandwich and a really delicious hot chocolate. The hot chocolate was especially delicious because I was freezing! This was by far the coldest day that I’d had in Europe- about 35. The week before when I was in Rome, it was 80. After 5 hours outside, even a Wisconsin girl needed to warm up.

So obviously, I had to stop in stores on my way back to the train station to stay warm. It was for my own safety. First I found a magical store called Hema that was about the closest to Target that I’ve seen in Europe. I got a tiny Christmas tree for 4 euros there. It looked a little funny to bring my Christmas tree on the train with me in the beginning of November, but I went with it.

Then I found a shoe store that was even more magical. I’m very picky about shoes. It’s actually hard for me to buy shoes in Europe (*first world problem alert*) because it’s a lot harder here to find affordable shoes that are also cute. However, miracle of miracles, I found really cute black ankle boots here. And then I accidentally also bought some heels.

After that detour, it was pretty much time for my train. So then I headed back to France carrying my two shoe boxes and a Christmas tree.

There was some excitement while I was waiting for the train when this old lady kept trying to speak Luxembourgish to me. It didn’t work out too well for her. On that note...I wanted to talk about the weird mixture of French and German in Luxembourg.

In Switzerland, there’s a very clear distinction of where people speak each language in the different regions. In my vast amount of experience in Basel, Switzerland (at the train station), which is a German region, I didn’t hear any French, and the first language on every sign was in German. In Luxembourg it was all mixed together. At the bookstore, French and German books weren’t even separated. Some signs were only in French and some were only in German. Some people spoke to me in French and some in German. And that one lady in Luxembourgish. I thought that was kind of interesting.

Oh the things you learn when you randomly go to Luxembourg.